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Meet The Kansas Senator Who Serves Both JoCo And WyCo

Laura Ziegler

In 2012, Democratic Sen. Pat Pettey was elected to represent Kansas' 6th district. Redistricting had just added a small part of Johnson County to a district that was previously only Wyandotte County. Today, the 6th district covers part of Kansas City, Kan., west to Edwardsville. It also covers parts of Merriam and Overland Park in Johnson County.

While the demographics in these parts of Wyandotte and Johnson counties are pretty similar, they have very different profiles and priorities in Topeka.  

The hardest issue, Pettey says, is the mother of all sticky Kansas political issues — schools.

She says people in Johnson County are very protective of their schools.

"Some people will say, particularly some elected officials, because of the valuation of their properties, that they're able to raise more money and help other parts of the state. They want more of a voice."

The problem, she says, is that some of the Wyandotte County districts have both lower property valuation and greater need. KCK schools, for example, have 90 percent of their students on free and reduced lunches.  Turner school district, also in Wyandotte County, has 70 percent.

Pettey wants good education for all children, but the legal and legislative uncertainly swirling around education funding worries her.

Outside of education issues, Pettey says the Johnson-Wyandotte county line doesn't  affect much of  her work.  But that doesn’t mean it never will.  For example, when the tax was taken off machinery and equipment, Pettey was a Commissioner with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.  She watched as her home county lost six million dollars a year.

"If I’d been in the legislature at that time, I'd have been looking at it with Wyandotte County eyes."

And that could have been a challenge for her Johnson County voters.

At the same time, Pettey sees benefits to her dual-county role. She says she's attuned to issues facing her small Johnson County constituency. She gets invited to education and Chamber of Commerce lunches and learns from leaders in Johnson County. It helps her understand state-wide issues when she is in Topeka.

Even though Johnson County continues to be an economic engine for Kansas, Wyandotte County —where Pettey has deep roots — has come a long way economically.

"Interestingly, when I was in the House in the 90s,  I had some legislators refer to Wyandotte County as the armpit of the state, sucking services but not providing anything tax wise," says Pettey. "Now, the attitude is we're still Democratic, but now you have this economic engine that’s helping (the state) improve."

Pettey says she's found what’s good for Wyandotte County is good for Johnson County. The differences many perceive between the two counties, for her, is just not that big a deal. 

This look at the Wyandotte / Johnson County line is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders  and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them. Become a source for KCUR as we investigate Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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